The idea of partially privatizing some of the core functions of the Barrow County government has been getting a lot of currency in the last couple of weeks. Barrow County Board of Commissioners chairman Pat Graham first floated the idea in a column in the Journal and has since elaborated more in public discussions about this plan. Essentially, what Graham and her board are considering is to outsource some of the central functions of the county government, pretty much everything except the constitutional officers jobs.
It’s an intriguing idea. A lot of governments have been experimenting with privatizing various functions that were traditionally being done by government. The most obvious example is how most local governments now handle garbage collection. Not so long ago, most city governments had their own garbage trucks and employees who would collect garbage every week and haul it to a landfill. Now, just about every city government contracts with a private garbage service firm to fulfill that function.
That is the core idea behind privatizing other government functions. If it can be done for garbage, why not for planning and zoning, fire protection, IT management and other departments?
The philosophical idea behind this move is that the private sector will be more efficient in providing those services and that it can deliver better quality at a lower cost.
Not surprisingly, many government employees are opposed to privatization efforts. They see those moves as upsetting the status quo and endangering their own jobs. Government bureaucrats sometimes live in a bubble where they believe they need secretaries for secretaries because someone might be working too hard. And in states that allow government employee unions, government bureaucrats are very protective of their gold-plated benefit plans.
But a lot of citizens like the idea of privatizing government services, especially if they’ve had a bad encounter at a local government office. It’s not uncommon for government employees to be very weak on customer service, taking an attitude that they’re doing someone a favor by waiting on them. (And a lot of citizens have had the unpleasant experience of dealing with a government office where the employees were so involved in chit-chatting with each other about personal items that the customer is barely acknowledged.)
While the idea of privatizing has become popular, especially now as local county and city governments wrestle with falling revenues, it’s not always a panacea. Privatizing has worked well in some places, but it has had problems in other communities.
There are three fundamental issues with efforts to privatize a local government: Cost, quality and transparency.
Like a lot of firms, those who bid on government services will often low-ball their proposals to establish a relationship. But once in place, those firms will begin adding charges that could significantly raise the costs far beyond what was anticipated. Sometimes that happens because the government didn’t spell out in its RFP exactly what it wanted and the firm ends up having to provide services it didn’t anticipate. Other times, however, the original bid is just a manipulated ruse to get in the door.
The quality of privatization also varies. Some firms don’t know what they don’t know and end up not being able to provide the level of service the community expects. Vetting private firms to make sure they have a clean track record and can really deliver what they promise is critically important.
And there are sometimes problems with transparency. Many private firms are loathe to be open about their decision-making and internal problems. But when a private firm is doing a public function, there can be no secrecy. These firms are quasi-public agencies and their first responsibility is to the citizens they serve. They cannot hide problems behind the veil of “we’re a private firm and we don’t have to tell you anything.”
But privatization does offer some advantages despite those problems. For one thing, the quality of personnel is sometimes better than what a local government has or can provide. One suspects that issue is one of the underlying themes of Barrow’s move to privatize. There are reportedly a number of employee quality issues in the county government, sometimes because people were hired not because of their skills, but rather because who they were related to or who their cohorts are. Getting rid of under-skilled employees in a local government can be very difficult and privatization is a way to do that in one move.
Another positive aspect of privatization is that sometimes it is more cost efficient to outsource than it is to keep the status quo. That is certainly one of the major aspects Barrow County is looking at since the county government is facing tremendous financial pressures.
But for all of that to work, Barrow leaders will have to do two things right. First, the county will have to very clearly define what it wants from a private firm. That includes the level of services expected. There can be no guesswork in the process and the contract between the county and a firm will have to be vetted and put under a microscope. If the county expects one thing but the firm offers something different, then the arrangement will be a marriage made in hell.
The second thing Barrow will have to do right for this to work is to establish an ongoing process of evaluation. The county can’t simply sign a contract and then walk away with its fingers crossed. It will have to measure performance metrics and measure those every month to make sure both sides know where they stand. Like a lot of things, government privatization looks good on paper, but it’s not always as good as it looks in the real world. Corruption, waste, fraud and laziness are all human traits and whether in government or the private sector, they can happen anywhere. Accountability is paramount to protect the citizens.
If Barrow decides to go forward with this idea, it will be an interesting experiment. The most interesting question is this: Can the county government survive a clash between an old, entrenched and rigid government culture and the promise of a lighter, faster and more flexible private sector culture?
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of the Barrow Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.